Enrolling in Portable U

Paperless study. C’mon, you know you can do it.

Paperless Study and your Portable U

I did it, and you can too

What’s Covered in this Article:

(click here to download a PDF of this file)

Paperless Study

There are hundreds of ways to make your online class a better experience. Studying online is an increasingly available option – it’s cheaper, and in many ways, better. There are lots of articles explaining how to create on-line learning communties and get a sense of belonging with your classmates far away. By far, this is the most important aspect of on-line learning.

But second comes the technology, and that’s what this article is about. Unfortunately, teaching hasn’t quite caught up to the possibilities digital study has to offer. What this means for you is that you’ll have to make obsolete resources match more rapidly-developing technologies. Until the education system  catches up, you’re going to have
to make some accomodations.

If you have any interest in tools and techniques to save paper, money, and consequently do your part in preserving the environment, this tutorial is for you. For two semesters of on-line grad school, I had 1589 pages of assigned reading in PDF format. I only printed 47 pages of that, because I had to present on those particular readings and wanted something I could refer to in my hand. That’s 1542 pages I didn’t print by doing my readings all on the computer. That’s about $77 at a nickel apiece. But more importantly, that’s a considerable chunk of tree I saved. Plus, those annotated readings are stored electronically in folders on my computer where I can refer to them as necessary, and review the notes I took embedded in the PDF files.

Portable U

Given the increasing popularity of
on-line courses and abundance of internet cafés around the world, it’s completely feasible to get a degree on-line while on the go, doing all your reading, posting, and research at internet cafés along your journey. All this can be done from a portable thumb drive. I’m now nearing the end of my 2nd semester in a master’s level on-line applied anthropology degree, and I’ve done both semesters entirely using a 4 GB portable flash drive. I used this trusty knowledge store in Internet cafe’s in Nicaragua, an AOL dial-up connection in the home of a gracious old couple who hosted me in Florida, international calling centers at the beach, restaurants on Costa Rica’s east coast, and just between home and the office. You probably won’t go the full gambit and try to balance an on-line degree while backpacking through Central America. But at the very least you might want to keep your on-line class portable so you can carry it around with you on a flash drive instead of being tied to a specific computer. The other reason for doing this was that I walk to and from work in an area notorious for armed theft, and I tried to minimize the risk of being robbed and loosing my laptop by carrying my course in my pocket instead of my laptop in my backpack.

If it’s your goal to keep your on-line studies portable by creating a flash drive you can carry around with all your studies on it, this tutorial will help you do it.  Granted, most of the work will be up to you to personalize and contextualize your “Portable University” for your own on-line classes, with links and folders set up specifically for your degree. But aside from that, this guide will suggest some helpful tools and bare necessities you’d probably want to include in your Portable U.

Now let’s get on it. Let me first introduce you to the tools you’ll need for your paperless classroom, whether you choose to make it portable or not.

Highlighting and annotating

What you need is a program that will let you mark up a scanned PDF file like above.

How to Highlight and Annotate Scanned PDFs

First of all, many of your readings will be sent to you on-line, as PDFs scanned from journal articles. Wouldn’t it be nice to read them on a Kindle, netbook, or digital reader? Won’t be easy, because the PDF’s are probably double-columned scanned images with no real text information so you can’t reflow the text. And most frustrating of all, you can’t highlight, annotate, or add comments to the readings. This is a problem.Two programs will allow you to do this… all digitally, and for free. They both require the same tweak in order to work to do what you need them to.

PDF X-change

for Windows

  • “PDF X-change” is a free program for Windows that will let you highlight and annotate PDF documents for free.
  • PDF X-change is my prefered program for reading and annotating PDFs.
  • The changes are saved within the file and can be opened in any other PDF viewer.
  • Read on for how to tweak “PDF X-change” to let you highlight scanned PDF’s that have no embedded text information.


for Mac

  • “Skim” is a free program for Mac that will let you highlight and annotate PDF documents for free.
  • Changes are not embedded in the file, though, so my preference is PDF X-change for the PC. In fact, I use WINE on my Mac to run PDF X-change on Mac OS X instead of using Skim.
  • Read on for how to tweak “Skim” to let you highlight scanned PDF’s that have no embedded text information.

These programs will allow you to highlight and comment on all text-based documents for free. But what about scanned articles that are all catty-whompus, crooked, and won’t let you highlight them with the default highlight tool? This is because the files are scanned as images and have no real text information. What to do?

You have to create a thick, semi-transparent line, which you can then drag over the text in any direction, just like a normal highlighter. Here’s how you do it:

PDF X-change

Creating a highlight tool

(Click to enlarge the screenshot)

(Click to enlarge the screenshot)

  1. Open a PDF document and select the “Line Tool” by clicking it on the menu bar or by going to “Tools->Comment and Markup
    Tools->Line Tool”
  2. Draw a red line in the document. It will be thick and red – not useful for highlighting. We’ll make it a highlighting mark.
  1. Right click the line you just drew and select “properties”. Then click “Appearance.”
  2. Set “Border Width” to “10”, “Stroke Color” to “Teal,”
    “Opacity” to “40%”, and “Blend Mode” to “Multiply.” Click “OK.”
  3. Now it looks like a highlighting mark! You want that to be the default so all your lines look like the one you just made. To do that, Right-click the line you just made again, and select “Set Current Appearance as Default”.

Creating a highlight tool

  • Open a document and use the “Line” option from Tool Mode on the toolbar to draw a red line.
  • Right-click the line and click “Note Color”. Change the
    color to a good highlighting color (I use teal). Set the opacity to
    30%. Save it.
  • Right-click the line again and click “Note Line.” Change the “Line Width” to “10” and the “Line Ending Styles” to squares.
  • Close the Dialog box and your line tool will now allow you to highlight.

Next, you need a way to highlight webpages, and snip parts of your reading lessons into a notebook. Can’t a computer make that process easier for you?

It can, thanks to a recent Firefox add-on called Yooper.


Firefox add-on to highlight webpages

  • You can install “Yooper” as an add-on in Firefox.
  • It allows you to highlight webpages (INCLUDING portions of webpages deep within on-line classrooms like WebCT and Blackboard!)
  • If you install Firefox portable on a flash drive, you can install this add-on and use it on any computer you use.

One last utility you’ll need is something to take and organize notes with. There are lots of options for this… you just have to pick one with the features you need. Of course, you could use Microsoft Word – but the problem is that it is really tacky when you try and paste your text from Word into an on-line discussion thread. Your best bet is to go with a program with a “WYSIWIG” HTML editor where you can cut and paste the source. If that last sentence sounds like gibberish, just realize that if you are going to write your discussion board posts offline and then try to paste them on the discussion boards, you might have to experiment with different note-taking applications.

3 Free Apps

for Note Taking and Typing up Posts off-line


Download and More Info

Codetch Firefox Add-on

Download and More Info


Download | Portable Version | More Info

Organize and Customize it. Personalize your U

OK, most important is on-line solidarity with your classmates. I lied about the next most important thing being the technology. It’s not. On-line study makes YOU go the extra mile in staying organized and on top of things. You gotta find creative ways of staying on track in the course, or you WILL get lost, you WILL get behind, and you WILL fail.

There are tons of good ways to do this. Again, I will suggest to you what I used, because it’s practical and it worked. You can start from here but you have to find something that works for you.

  • First off, print off the syllabi for all the courses you’re taking. Most information you’ll need is in there. It helps to highlight important due dates for large projects and special events
  • Usually your week-to-week schedule will be more or less the same. If you’re working full or part-time, I suggest you make a weekly schedule and set apart specific times to work on your on-line course. Base it off the syllabus.
  • Keep your files ORGANIZED, into classes, “readings to do” and “readings completed” within those classes, and “special reports” within those classes. Download all the readings at the beginning if you can, so you aren’t constantly having to log in and hunt down the readings. Prefix each reading with the Week number you’re supposed to read it on, if you really want to be on top of things.
  • Let your browser save your passwords. Or use KeepPass (more info. below) to manage all your passwords.
  • Make quick links to everything you use – on-line classroom, the library, your e-mail account, etc… Make everything as easy to get around as possible. If you find yourself doing repetitive tasks, see if you can find a way to streamline or make shortcuts to make things go faster.
  • Start a document for each class with random notes that you can add to throughout the semester.
  • Start a document for each class where you can write the post prompts and responses before you paste them in your on-line classroom

Enrolling in Portable U – Going Mobile

All right, keep reading if you’re going to go the extra mile and make your course truly portable so you can carry it around on a flash drive. First, should I outline the benefits of making your on-line study environment portable? I designed my studies to be portable and it suited me well because my situation is a little more unpredictable than most people’s. I adhered religiously to keeping all my course information on a portable flash drive because of security reasons (walking to and from work where theft is rampant), because of frequent travel, and because I work with learners who don’t often have their own personal computer and I wanted to live the experience and approximate it as best I could. Interestingly, I found the versatility of my Portable U extremely useful, and more robust than limiting myself to one computer, and it really payed off to keep everything running from the flash drive. I may just do my whole degree this way.

Let me mention as well that mobility was not just important for my job, but for my course of study. Studying applied anthropology is awesome in and of itself, but it takes on a new life when your bus breaks down and you have to hike through the very banana plantations Philippe Bourgois writes about in the textbook you’re reading. Or when you spend a week in the home of someone who traveled with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and get a whole new perspective on political economy theory. Or when you write a report on the settlement and history of Costa Rica’s Afro-Caribbean East coast, and then visit the very towns you’re writing about and know the community struggle behind the run-down schoolhouse in the corner of town. You know what you’re seeing when the kid asking you for a lighter has small burns on his fingers and lips, and you see the effects of how racism and “modernization” have transformed a fishing community into a place locals are afraid to visit. This is one of the opportunities that on-line study offers – the world is your classroom. Why do it any other way?

So anyway, besides your course readings and files, what tools will be useful to have on your Portable U?

Here’s where you’ll get the tools for your Portable U:

Step 1 – Downloading and Installing the Portable Apps bundle

  1. First, head over to http://portableapps.com and download the
    Portable Suite Standard. This bundle will automatically load most of what we’ll need.

    • Install the Portable Apps Suite to the root folder of your flash drive. It will take a while.
  2. Trim down any applications you know you won’t use. I’m going to delete CoolPlayer Plus. You can also delete Pidgin, Mines, and Sudoku.
  3. Next I’ll list some tools you will find useful. Downloading and installing these is very straightforward.

Step 2 – Recommended Portable Apps

  • Firefox Portable

    • Installing Firefox portable enables you to customize your browser specifically for your class add-ons and
    • Delete default links from top bar, add your university links.
    • Make sure pop-ups can display on your university website.
  • PDF-XChange Viewer Portable

      • I recommend you replace Sumatra PDF reader with this. Sumatra is a great light-weight PDF Reader. But if you’re taking an on-line course, you’ll be doing extensive reading and marking up of documents. The lightweight PDF reader “PDF-XChange Viewer” will allow you to read and markup PDF’s.
      • Unzip the PDF-XChange Viewer file. Create a folder on your flashdrive in the PortableApps folder, and move the program into it.
      • Remove Sumatra PDF Reader if you aren’t going to use it.
      • Now you can read your PDF papers, and if they were scanned properly, highlight and annotate them!
  • Evernote

    • Evernote is a handy note-taking utility with the ability to tag and organize random notes. With free registration you can sync your notes on-line, amongst different computers. It also allows you to snip notes from the web and organize them within Evernote. Very cool. Very useful.
    • To install, download the most recent version here. Install it into Windows, run the program, sign up for a free account, and then go to “Tools->Install Evernote Portable.” Install it to a subdirectory of your Documents folder on your flash drive.
      • After installing, run the program once and sync it. Exit the program completely.
    • Copy the “Program Files” Folder into your Portable Apps folder. Delete, or at least rename the suffix of, the file EvernoteTray.exe (unless you plan to start this feature from your Portable Apps menu)
  • KeePass

    • KeePass will keep track of all your passwords and you only have to remember one master password. Very useful.
  • VLC Player

    • Guaranteed, your biggest headache even on your own computer will be coming to a standstill when trying to play a media file (video or audio that you don’t have the program for). Flash, quicktime, Real Media player… whatever,  one of your best catch-all solutions is an open-source video player called VLC Player. It plays everything.
    • Download the most recent version here.

Still Looking for More?

updated March 28, 2010 by Brendan Blowers

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